Short Lithium Supply Pumps Brakes on EV Boom

Short Lithium Supply Pumps Brakes on EV Boom

Global demand for electric vehicles (EVs) is growing rapidly, even as the supply of lithium, a critical component of EV batteries, remains low. Last year, 6.6 million electric cars were purchased worldwide, and BloombergNEF predicts we’ll see at least 469 million on the roads by 2035. Lithium -- aka “white gold” -- though, is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. Right now, the world produces 0.54 million tons of lithium annually, not enough to sustain the long term growth of the EV industry. Luckily, new production technologies may soon revolutionize the industry, and could even boost lithium production to 3 million tons per year by 2030.

“Lithium isn’t geologically scarce,” Benchmark Mineral Intelligence CEO Andrew Miller explained to Grid. “It is not about the geological availability of lithium, but the ability of the industry to extract it.”

Newsy: ​​How is lithium produced? Chile’s Salar de Atacama holds the recipe, May 2022.

Al Jazeera: Chile's lithium | Indigenous community fights multinational miners, April 16, 2022.

CNBC: Why The US Has A Massive Lithium Supply Problem, January 15, 2022.

Why This Matters

EVs are an essential component on the path to net zero. Gas-powered vehicles emit fumes containing PM2.5, a harmful chemical proven to cause lung cancer. Electrification, though,  could minimize this risk to human health in communities worldwide. One recent report even suggests that the US could prevent 66,000 deaths by 2050 just by electrifying 6% of the nation’s high-emitting trucks.

Francis Crick Institute: Researchers discuss link between air pollution and lung cancer, September 13, 2022.

NBC: New Study Finds Pollution Caused Nearly Nine Million Deaths Worldwide In 2019, May 18, 2022.

Reuters: Air pollution cuts life expectancy by more than two years, June 15, 2022.

TED: End fossil fuels to protect human health | Carolyn Orr, March 1, 2022.

Demand Exceeds Supply

Lithium demand will only continue to rise. New York, California, Washington, and Massachusetts have announced a ban on new gas-powered vehicles by 2035, while the US plans to incentivize EV purchases through tax breaks. But importing supply is both costly and politically challenging, given the current energy crisis and child labor violations in the industry. As of now, just three countries -- Chile, Australia, and China -- are responsible for more than 80% of lithium production.

Bloomberg: Why China’s Electric Car Lead Has Been a Long Time Coming, October 13, 2021.

CNBC: Why The EV Industry Has A Massive Supply Problem, March 8, 2022.

CNBC: How The Troubled Salton Sea Could Become The World’s Largest Lithium Supplier, May 4, 2022.

Expanding and sustaining clean energy technology production will require the nation to build up domestic supply chains, first and foremost. Luckily, the Inflation Reduction Act, recently passed by Congress, supports these efforts. The Act provides $16 million to GEMx, a research effort by NASA and the US Geological Survey that collects data on domestic critical mineral deposits.

Mineral mining, however, raises significant environmental concerns. Some lithium centers, like Chile, have already experienced water source depletion and biodiversity loss due to unsustainable mining practices. But, as Colorado School of Mines Professor Ian Lange emphasizes, we are facing the greatest threat in human history. “If you don’t turn over dirt to get lithium out of the ground, you’re probably turning over dirt to get natural gas, or oil, or uranium,” he says.

Domestic lithium extraction projects could soon be underway. Lithium Americas Corps secured the necessary permits to begin mining at Thacker Pass in Nevada, and is awaiting a January 5 hearing for final approval.

Automotive market experts say that it is difficult to imagine the EV future -- but this shouldn’t be cause for despair. In California, for example, 55% of voters support the ban on gasoline-powered vehicles. Utilities and automakers are already working to build public trust, and to strengthen the grid against future demand spikes.

CNBC: Why The EV Industry Faces A Global Nickel Shortage, March 19, 2022.

DW: How salt and sand could replace lithium batteries, August 19, 2022.